Happy Full Cold Moon!
To celebrate today's December full moon, here's an excerpt from my novel which shares its name. Enjoy, and stay warm!
Curtis Pike huddled in his Ford Interceptor SUV, sipping lukewarm coffee and watching the snowflakes turn blue and red in the strobing light. It gave him the creeps, sitting out here in the woods with a beacon on the roof announcing his presence, but the chief had insisted, just in case the missing guy came back this way.
It had been a slow night in Whispering Pines until a dispatch sent Curtis to check out a possible vehicle accident up Canyon Drive. But all he found when he got there was a nice GMC with the doors locked, keys in the ignition, and the engine running. A big tree branch had fallen in front of it, and Curtis determined the driver got out to pull it aside. What had happened next was a mystery.
From the footprints in the snow, it appeared the driver discovered he’d locked himself out, shuffled around a bit, maybe slipped and fell, then walked into the forest. Curtis had managed to track a single set of bootprints down to the creek, but there the trail ended.
He didn’t like it. The whole thing reminded him of what happened to Anita Hoffman ten years ago, just downstream at Tumtum Lake. Curtis was a long way from being one of the five sworn members of the Whispering Pines Police Department back then, but the grisly details had circulated, the way such things tend to in places the size of the Pines. The poor woman’s heart had been ripped right from her chest. It was the only part of her never found.
Curtis swallowed the last grainy dregs. The coffee had gone straight through him, but the notion of stepping out and exposing himself to the cold and whatever might be lurking in it was even less appealing than a bladder infection. He liked his heart right where it was, thank you very much.
His cell phone lit up and vibrated sternly, and Curtis’ bladder nearly emptied itself all over the seat. He tapped the screen to answer.
“Chief? What’s the good news?” he asked.
“Got descriptions out to State Police and the sheriff’s office,” came the gruff, tired reply. Garrison Gray had seen the best and worst times of their little town. He knew the first hours in a missing persons case were the most important, but that in Whispering Pines they were, historically, already too late. “I’ve driven up Cheechako Creek Road and around the other side of the lake. No sign of ‘im. I’ll start knocking on doors next.”
“Try Chip Gibbs. They worked together up here. He might have called him for a ride.” Somehow, with his phone locked inside his truck. Think before speaking, Curtis!
“Already did,” the chief said. “Chip hasn’t spoken to him in weeks.”
Curtis performed a mental review of what he knew. Locked, idling truck, no sign of injuries. Then, for some reason, the driver had made a beeline for the creek and vanished, in the middle of a snowstorm.
Almost like he’d been running away from something. Something that left no footprints of its own. Curtis drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. Trying to focus through the urge to take a leak.
“You checked the trailer?” the chief asked, and Curtis felt a twinge of irritation. Of course he’d checked. He didn’t just get his badge yesterday.
“It’s all locked up. He isn’t inside, as far as I could make out.”
“Double-check for me. Not that I don’t believe you, I just don’t want to assemble search and rescue only to find out this guy’s back in there sleeping off a bottle.”
Curtis snorted. He’d been thinking that same thing. To lock yourself out of your truck with the engine running, you had to be blowing numbers on the Yer-Fucked-O-Meter.
Unless it wasn’t an accident.
Curtis stared at the massive tree limb. What were the odds it would fall right there, blocking the way? They’d all been waiting for something like this to happen, ever since they learned some big developer had bought up a bunch of land on the outskirts of town. These woods had a bloody history, and in Whispering Pines, history had a bad habit of repeating itself.
Curtis carefully maneuvered around the GMC and ascended the snowy incline that would eventually be a driveway to the upscale development. He looked at the big sign as he passed: ICICLE POINT - COMING SOON: Luxury, Community, Harmony.
How much were those prices going to drop if the project manager disappeared out here?
Or worse, if they found him like they’d found Anita Hoffman?
There was nothing quite like the quality of silence when it snowed. It was absolute. Primordial. There was a weight to it that you could feel the longer you stood still, closing in around you, the cold embrace of something huge and unfathomable. Curtis clicked on his flashlight and crunched softly to the trailer door. It was still locked.
“Police department!” he shouted, pounding on the door. “Anybody inside?”
Nobody answered. Nothing stirred.
“Police! Hello?” What was the guy’s name? Allen something.
A sound issued from the darkness behind him, like an exhale, followed by a hushed thud. Curtis directed his light into the woods. Another tree shrugged its load and a quiet cascade of snow made its way from upper branches to the ground with soft splats. He let out his breath and returned his attention to the trailer.
Was that somebody?
He whirled back around and swept the flashlight beam across the tree line. As it passed between trunks, he caught a brief glimpse of a figure standing motionless, watching him.
Curtis focused the light on that spot.
The shape turned out to be a scrawny young tree, leafless and huddled like a child beneath the protective canopy of towering pines. Snow was piled around its base, but there was none on its naked limbs. It looked a little like a person, if you didn’t stare directly at it. If you were alone and on-edge and thinking about all that had happened in these woods before.
“Anybody out there? Allen?” His voice didn’t make it far before it was swallowed by the hungry silence.
Curtis jumped back into the Interceptor, locked the doors, and dialed the chief.
“It’s Pike. There’s nobody up here,” he said, straining, hoping his bladder wouldn’t explode. A long, tired sigh came from the speaker. “I hate to say it,” Curtis added, “but this feels like Les to me. You remember what he did to that girl last summer, the one trapping squirrels? I think it’s safe to say what Allen was up to was an order of magnitude worse. At least, according to Les.”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions. It could be Les. It could be something else. But we need to get more feet on the ground, either way.” The chief chose his words carefully. He was thinking about Anita Hoffman, too. “Stay with the vehicle. And Curtis?”
“Keep your doors locked.”
Curtis pocketed his phone, shifted the Interceptor into gear, and made a slow turn back toward the road. His headlights passed over the spot where the little tree stood.
Only now it was gone.
A small burst of adrenaline warmed him. Had there actually been somebody watching him, and he somehow mistook them for a tree?
No, there it is. You were just looking in the wrong place.
Relief rushed in, followed by a painful cramp. He threw the Interceptor into Park, unzipped his pants, and grabbed the empty coffee cup. He stared at the tree as he relieved himself. Snow was accumulating on its branches, now. As if at some point it had moved out from under cover and into the clearing.
Moved closer to him.
Stop! Next you’re going to be seeing things in the back seat!
Curtis cracked the door and emptied the cup into the snow, then tossed it into the trash bag he carried and pulled the door shut. He knew with a sick certainty that if he looked at the little tree again it would be even closer. It was just his mind playing tricks, of course; an illusion created by snowfall and shadows and paranoia.
But what happened to Anita Hoffman hadn’t been an illusion. Had she also come across a strange little tree that fateful day? What about this Allen guy?
Just look. Either it’s still there, being a tree, or it’ll be right behind you, and you’ll become another stain in this town’s history.
Curtis Pike didn’t look. He kept his eyes glued to the road and drove quickly from the worksite.
Some things were better left a mystery.